Dr. R.P. Dubey/ Multiple Clefts in Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Dr. Ravi Prakash Dubey

Assistant Professor

Career Advancement Department

Manglayatan University



There are multiple clefts in the novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Some of them have been discussed in this paper. The Second World War, very much like the First World War, has been one of the greatest disasters that the world has undergone. A lot can be discussed, has been discussed and a lot can be concluded; the bottom line is that in any war humans kill humans and other species. There are strategies and counter strategies to tackle the enemy in a war creating myriad clefts in personalities and situations. If there is one event where the images of ‘self’ and ‘other’ can be most easily seen, it is a war. When Japan attacked Burma (WW-II) and in order to keep its hold on it decided to create the infamous ‘death railway’, the victorious country had nothing with them except the will power and the control over the uncountable POWs (prisoners of war). The POWs were of no value for them and hence they were thrown to die while working for a railway line between Thailand and Burma. Richard Flanagan, being the son of one of the survivors of the ‘death railway’, has the first hand experience of the catastrophe.

The present paper reads the novel of Richard Flanagan and investigates how identities within identities are created, how the sense of belonging is created and destroyed simultaneously and purposefully. Some aspects of history have been explored and critical conclusions have been drawn. The paper makes the use of the discourse analysis and the textual analysis. It also applies the tools on New Historicism at times. The title takes a cue from the quotation from the novel where the Colonel in the Japanese army tries to prove that the non-freedom is equally important as freedom.


 One person has many identities at once; and has different identities in the same role at different times. To give it with a simple fact no one is the same son, the same daughter, the same mother, the same boss or the same employee etc. in a given span of time. The time tends to change not only the nature, settings, but sometimes even the very essence of a person. There are multiple examples of this idea in The Narrow Road to the Deep North. These identities are created and destroyed due to multiple forces. Pair of such binary forces which have been recognized in this paper are the forces of ‘Freedom’ and ‘non-freedom’ which is contextualized in the paper from a discussion between Japanese Commander Nakamura and Dorigo Evans in the novel. Freedom is a sense of self control and non-freedom is a sense of being controlled by someone else. A person undergoes a sea-change when he crosses over Freedom to Non-freedom. Freedom is an act that you do or make some else do; whereas Non-Freedom is what you are made to do under someone else’s control. The present paper is a critique of multiple ‘self’ and ‘other’ ensuing from the very idea of Freedom and Non-freedom and hence entitled so. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a war novel as well as a personal novel. The hypothesis is very widely applicable in both the aspects of the novel. The paper thus moves ahead on certain clefts, creating multiple ‘self’ and ‘other’, which function to delineate the main concern undertaken here.

Following major clefts have been observed, deliberated and delineated:

  1. The cleft between genders.
  2. The cleft of nationalities and survival.
  3. The cleft within oneself. The psychological aspect.
  4. The cleft between one person’s existences at two different places on the time line.
  5. The cleft between the ruler and the ruled and many more.

To understand the premise of Freedom and no-freedom, let us see the following conversation. The event occurs at the LINE, the Death Railway, and the railway between Thailand to Burma. Dorigo is the head of prisoners who have been given the task of making the line and the work is in progress non-stop for thirty seven days. This phase was referred to as the Speedo. Here is the quotation:

The Speedo has been going thirty-seven days non-stop, Major, Dorigo Evans began. Nakamura looked at him, smiling. Dorigo Evans smiled back. To fulfill the Emperor’s wishes, we would be wisest to harness our resources. To best build the railway, we need to rest our men rather than destroy them. A day’s rest would do an enormous amount to help preserve not just the men’s energy, but the men themselves.

He fully expected Nakamura to explode, to hit him or threaten him, or at the very least to yell and scream at him. But the Japanese commander only laughed as the Lieutenant Fukuhara translated. He made a quick aside and was already lurching out as Fukuhara translated his reply for Dorigo.

Major Nakamura say prisoner lucky. They redeem honour by dying for the emperor.

Nakamura halted, turned back and speaking to them.

It is true this war is cruel, Lieutenant Fukuhara translated. What war is not? But war is human beings. War what we are. War what we do. Railway might kill human beings, but I do not make human beings. I make railway. Progress does not demand freedom. Progress has no need of freedom. Major Nakamura, he say progress can arise for other reasons. You, doctor, call it non-freedom. We call it spirit, nation, Emperor. You, doctor, call it cruelty. We call it destiny. With us, or without us. It is the future.

Dorigo Evans bowed. Squizzy Taylor, a major and his second-in-command, did likewise.

But Major Nakamura wasn’t done. He spoke again and when finished Fukuhara said—Your British Empire, Major Nakamura say. He say: You think it did not need non-freedom, Colonel? It was built sleeper by sleeper of non-freedom, bridge by bridge of non-freedom. (Flanagan 74-75)

The Japanese commander clearly gives priority to work than to saving the POWs from dying. The ‘Emperor’s will’, or ‘the Emperor’s wishes’ have been repeated many times throughout the novel. The will of the emperor is much more important than the survival of millions of POWs. He believes that humans are the irrelevant things, especially when they are POWs. The real thing is the Railway, the victory for Japan. Nakamura gives ‘cruelty’ a new name ‘destiny’. Comparing this to the modern time activities of ISIS will definitely be not wrong at all. Moving ahead, the above concluded idea will be used to clarify and observe the different clefts which have earlier been notified.


The Narrow Road to the Deep North doesn’t deal with the gender issue very directly. But obliquely, the male and female characters can be discussed in reference to the theme in hand. The two characters that form the nucleus which is permeated throughout the story are Amy and Dorigo Evans. It is clearly visible that Amy and Dorigo are on the same psychological plain. They both equally pine for each other. And they both often think likewise. Both of them are in the custody of their own settings and they get free only for the time when they are together. Dorigo is living his military life and then his life as a war prisoner; whereas Amy lives her life first under the custody of her own illusions and lust and then under the distress of being the wife of a person she doesn’t love really. So there are multiple identities within each of them and the only identity which makes them move from non-freedom to freedom in them is being together.

There are not too many female characters in the novel like male characters because most part of the novel occurs at the Line where there are only male POWs. The role of women in the novel is mainly as long as they are related to Dorigo. As soon as they get disconnected, they lose focus of the narrative camera. The author insists that it is women who have shaped Dorigo Evans in what he is. “Women who loved him like entering the sea and returning to the beach. Over and over.”(Sic) (Flanagan 1)

To study further the Dorigo and Amy relationship, it forms the nucleus of the novel. They meet first time by coincident when there was nothing between them. The meeting takes place in a library. Ella was already in Dorigo’s life; though they were not married then. The first meeting creates such an impression on his mind that he keeps on looking for the logic to unravel his own self. But before he could understand what it was, he happens not to only meet Amy; but also in no time, falls deeply in love without any acknowledgement. They start dating and sleeping frequently. There is hardly a time when Dorigo doesn’t think about Amy. There is nothing that Dorigo doesn’t relate to Amy in one or the other way. It seems that they both are not two persons but the aspect of the same personality. The theory given by Nakamura of Freedom and Non Freedom can be applied here. All actions of Dorigo Evans are now Amy-oriented. There is no stronger influence in his life as clearly visible as the influence of Amy. There is no time when he enjoys complete freedom; rather he is the captive of non-freedom given by his fondness for Amy. Thus there are multiple clefts visible in his personality. Dorigo sleeps with many women in the entire course of the novel. And Amy also sleeps with many men but they could never find in any of them what they had found in each other. The fact proves that the self of both of them is different in their company than when they are in the company of someone else.


Australia, Japan and USA are the three major countries represented in the novel. Other countries which have been mentioned are Korea, India, Britain, and some African countries. The novel beautifully portrays a clash of identities, once again forming multiple clefts at different times. The Second World War breaks the boundaries and brings away these people from each other. The Line becomes a miniature globe mixing up the people of different parts of the globe.

A little introduction of Death Railway is necessary here:

The Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway, was a 415 kilometers (258 mi) railway between Ban Pong, Thailand, and Thanbyuzayat Burma, built by the Empire of Japan in 1943, to support its forces in the Burma campaign of World War II. This railway completed the railroad link between Bangkok, Thailand and Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon). The line was closed in 1947, but the section between NongPlaDuk and Nam Tok was reopened ten years later in 1957.

Forced labour was used in its construction. More than 180,000—possibly many more—Asian civilian labourers (romusha) and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) worked on the railway. Of these, estimates of romusha deaths are little more than guesses, but probably about 90,000 died. 12,621 Allied POWs died during the construction. The dead POWs included 6,904British personnel, 2,802 Australians, 2,782 Dutch, and 133 Americans.

After the end of World War II, 111 Japanese and Koreans were tried for war crimes because of their brutalization of POWs during the construction of the railway. 32 were sentenced to death. (Wikipedia Mar 24, 2014)

The different nationalities and the identities clashed during the war. The people of different nationalities fought not for their own self but for their masters whom they were surviving as war prisoners.

With reference to war, who is free and who is not becomes a very complicated question. The novel doesn’t try to answer these questions but delineates the situation in which the question can be deliberated. Jimmy Bigelow wonders why people of different nationalities are fighting for different nation. “Explain to me, Jimmy Bigelow was saying, why we machine-gun waves of black Africans fighting for the French who are equally intent on killing us, Australians fighting for the English in the Middle East? (Flanagan 36)

The Africans have been captured by French and they are made to fight against Australians. What is the true identity of these soldiers? Are they French or Africans? The multiple clefts come into picture here. The existential entity of these people makes them even more confused. But one thing they know that chief thing for each of them is to survive this vicious circle of war. For survival they can be ready to kill even their own people. Where is the identity then? Similarly the Australians were fighting for British. The French mortars are killing Australians. Can anyone be sure that these are native Australians? “The mortars the French has used in their attack had transformed the Australian defenders into things not human, drying dark-red meat and fly-blown viscera, streaked, smashed bone and the faces clenched back on exposed teeth, those exposed, terrible teeth of death Dorigo Evans began to see in every smile.” (Flanagan 33)

The Emperor’s will is oft quoted phrase in the novel which actually stands for the strategic benefits of Japan in the Second World War. The Japanese officer addresses to the POWs and introduces them to the Emperor’s will which later on was going to be proved the will for the death of POWs. “Thank you, he said, for long way here to help Emperor with railway. Being prisoner great shame. Great! Redeem honour building railway for Emperor. Great honour. Great!” (Flanagan 41)


Many characters in the novel appear to be estranged from themselves showing the cleft within their existence. The POWs have lost their psyche completely and they have stopped feeling pain and sometimes hunger too. Nakamura observes that there was no difference between the POWs and the machines used for making the death railway. Indeed, there was none. There is clear cleft between the real and the assumed existence of these people. They long not for anything but for the absolute minimum: a bowl of rice and the rest of a few minutes. They have been given orders to work till they start dying and finally they die. They had completely forgotten what freedom was and started to believe that a little deterioration in non-freedom is much better that absolute freedom.

There is a difference between the understanding of a war of a media person and of a soldier who takes part in it. The multiple clefts in this case emerges from the freedom of being away from war and non-freedom of being in the war and obeying the officers and situations. When enquired by a journalist in his old age about the war and the role of USA in the World War 2, Dorigo replies to a journalist. This bifurcation can be put more clearly before the reader with the following quote. “It is not that you know nothing about war, young man, Dorigo Evans had said. It is that you have learnt one thing. And war is many things.” (Flanagan 20)


The most abundant availability of multiple clefts crafted by freedom and slavery is in the matter of POWs . It is the very same context in which the pathetic discussion of Dorigo and Nakamura has been quoted earlier. The prisoners are transferred to the Line into steal Boxes. 27 of them into one box where they had no place even to sit. They were literally sitting on each other. “closed steel-box wagons used for carrying rice; twenty-seven men in each, not enough space to even sit….On the fifth afternoon they were taken off the train at Ban Pong, forty miles from Bangkok” (Flanagan 40)

The prisoners get a chance to take a bath in the river Kwai, and they realize the freedom of jumping into the river against the non freedom being kept into the steel boxes for more than five days without food or water. “Into the blessed river they jumped to swim. Five days in steel boxes, two days in trucks—how beautiful is the water?” (Flanagan 41) Nakamura is a very important character in the novel. He is a metaphor for Japan itself. Before the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing, during the construction of the Line, he appears to be all powerful man, above God. He has the ability to order the people to die. The same person appears to be an escapist in the last two parts of the novel. He is running from pillar to post to escape from getting caught by the Americans having his nameput in the list of the War criminals. It can be deliberated that Nakamura himself can be a case study for the present paper. There is a cleft within him which becomes more clearly visible with the passage of time around the historical events. The chief event is the defeat of Japan in the world war two and not much before that the capture of Burma by the Japan. When Nakamura finds his name in the list war criminals, he feels scared. When he gets married after many years of the war, he learns the importance of being a family man. Multiple shades of his personality can be studied in detail.

The study of multiple clefts in the novel can go much ahead. There are numerous aspects which must be analyzed to understand this aspect of the novel at its full. The novel has been crafted on a series of divides or clefts. This is the base that provides the main plot to the novel. The cleft between rulers and ruled is one more such distinction which has not been discussed in this paper in detail. The identities of rulers and ruled do keep changing throughout the novel. Dorigo Evans keeps shifting post and ultimately becomes a free citizen. But could he really be free from his other multiple selfs.


Primary Sources:

Flanagan, Richard: The Narrow Road to the Deep North; Chtto and Windus 2014, London. Print.

Secondary Sources:

  1. Review of The Narrow Road to the Deep North

http://aplusuaeessays.com/the-narrow-road-to-the-deep-north/ Web. Accessed on March 10, 2015

  1. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/175626.The_Narrow_Road_to_the_Deep_North_and_Other_Travel_Sketches / Web. Accessed on March 12, 2015
  2. Article Entitled ‘Burma Railway’http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burma_Railway Web. Accessed on March 06, 2015
  1. The Article based on the novel.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Narrow_Road_to_the_Deep_North_(novel)Web. Accessed on March 02, 2015





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